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Mr. Goliadkin and Mr. Goliadkin

September 23, 2011

Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Double.

The Double was unlike any other Dostoevsky novel I’ve ever read. The reason for the difference is easy to identify: it was written in 1846, whereas everything else I’ve read by Dostoevsky was written after his 1850s exile and conversion experience.

But this doesn’t say what was different about it; it’s just what Aristotle (if he spoke English) would call the efficient cause. It does point towards some of the differences. For example, it doesn’t end hopefully, as do Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov; neither does end in darkness but draw moral significance out of the darkness, as if it were a cautionary tale, as do Notes from Underground, The Idiot, and Demons. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be as absurdist; in fact, it reminds me of Kafka (and reminds others of Kafka as well). The premise alone is enough to tell you that: A timid government bureaucrat, Mr. Goliadkin, suddenly finds that he has a doppleganger, also Mr. Goliadkin, who begins to supplant him in both his work and his personal affairs.

But one thing I hadn’t quite expected was how funny it would be. Of course, it makes sense that it’s funny, since apparently it’s a parody of the Gogol short story “The Overcoat,” switching a totally objective style for a totally subjective one. But Dostoevsky doesn’t just use  Kafkaesque black humor and stream-of-consciousness tricks; there’s also quite amusing personalities, including the main character’s quirk of constantly saying the name of the person to whom he’s talking, and even some physical humor involving sneaking into a ball through the back entrance and falling into the mud.

This physical aspect is the other thing I wanted to talk about. More than any other Dostoevsky novel, The Double felt like it was actually set in the world; the snow was important, the mud was important, that the main character was short and fat and constantly out of breath was important. Most Dostoevsky novels leave me thinking that all that mattered was what the characters said; characters go on 30-page-long rants and everything takes place in drawing rooms and low-rent apartments which matter only to signal how much money the inhabitants have. Put differently, The Double is the only Dostoevsky novel I’ve read that hasn’t left me troubled by his “angelism”–his tendency to treat people like disembodied spirits whose lives consist of a single dramatic choice between Good and Evil.

The reason for this, I think, is obvious–the subject of the novel, the Doppelganger, must be considered in physical terms, because it’s a physical phenomenon. To have a Doppelganger is precisely to have all of the physical externals duplicated but to have it nevertheless be different; to be identical but not the same. It’s the problem of particularity, which seems inextricably tied to physicality; angels can’t have Doppelgangers. So when Dostoevsky takes on the subject, he still presents everything as internal stream-of-consciousness, but it has to be mediated by a third-person narrator, and it has to deal with the protagonist’s perception of the physical world, not just his perception of other people and God.

Of course The Double is also a somewhat immature work; it has its own flaws, and I would recommend any of the novels listed above over it any day. But it’s fun to see Dostoevsky deal with something he, in my opinion, did not deal enough with in his later writing, and also instructive to see to what extent he succeeded.

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